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Sonia Manzano On How To Talk To Kids About Race

Sonia Manzano
David Gonzalez
/
Fred Rogers Productions
Sonia Manzano in the Bronx

Actress and author Sonia Manzano will speak Thursday, September 16, at 8:00 PM during a virtual conversation and Q&A session titled “How to Talk to Kids about Race and Racism.” The conversation at Penn State is free and open to the public.

Manzano is is best known for playing Maria on Sesame Street, a role she held for more than 40 years. She is the creator of a new animated PBS show called Alma’s Way, which follows the experiences of six-year-old Alma Rivera, a Puerto Rican girl who lives in the Bronx and models empathy and problem-solving for viewers.

Registration for the event is available here.

Here's the interview:

Cheraine Stanford

Sonia, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sonia Manzano

My pleasure to be here. I'm looking forward to chatting with you.

Cheraine Stanford

So I want to start, obviously, with the role that you're most well known for, which is Maria on Sesame Street. When you look on your time on the show now, how do you kind of sum up your experience on the show and the impact that you've seen it have?

Sonia Manzano

Well, it has continued to be a remarkable experience being Maria on Sesame Street for so long. And I think we've sort of come full circle. I thought the problems we're dealing with now we would have solved back then. I was young. I was in my 20s. It was the civil rights movement. Jesse Jackson was on this show, saying, "This is my hair, and my hair is beautiful." And so I thought, "Wow, you know, talk about being in the right place at the right time in history," We've solved all of these problems. So it's disconcerting to be where I am now. And seeing that the impact that we thought we had made, wasn't all encompassing. Though, of course, we did make a huge impact.

Cheraine Stanford

Yeah, it's interesting you say that, because at the time, there's a new documentary (Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street) out about that, too. But at the time, Sesame Street was considered kind of revolutionary, right? I mean, there wasn't really anything like it on air.

Sonia Manzano

Absolutely. It was revolutionary. I had very strong feelings about it because I was born and raised in the South Bronx. And I watched a lot of television in the 50's. Shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver" and shows like that. And I never saw any Latin people. And you never saw people of color. And if you saw a person of color you'd go out into the hallway, you call the neighbors "There's a black person on television!" For real, I mean, this was how, how we were invisible to the main society. And obviously, you know, you wonder what you're going to contribute to a society that didn't see you. And there was that scary feeling growing up about what you were going to be. So when I saw Susan on Sesame Street, I was a college student at Carnegie Mellon University. And I said, "Oh, my goodness!" I mean, there's this beautiful black woman with this gorgeous husband, Matt Robinson. Susan and Gordon. I said, "This is really too much." So then I became Maria on the show. And by the way, because Latin activists demanded it so on the west coast, they said, "if you have these role models for African American children, what about Latinos?" And they went, "Okay, great!" And it was so new that I got cast 2112and then I became what I needed to see as a kid. Healing my way through time and television. Because I thought I healed myself by finally being the person I needed to see in the media.

Cheraine Stanford

You are scheduled to speak at a virtual Penn State event about how to talk to children about race. Why is this an important discussion to have with children, especially right now?

Sonia Manzano

Right now, you know, it's in our faces, everybody sees it everywhere. Kids notice these things. I noticed these things when I was a kid. You know, in my own culture, there was always one attitude about the light skinned Puerto Ricans and a different attitude about dark skinned dark skinned Puerto Ricans. As a matter of fact, I had a light skinned, Puerto Rican, cousin. And I used to worry that if we were in the south during the bus boycotts, I'd have to sit in the back of me to have to sit in the front. And then I wouldn't know when to get out off [laugh]. Here I am dealing with racial identity and being lost in the south. So I know that kids really think about these things. And you know, why is it important? We just have to keep doing it. We can't sort of keep shooting ourselves in the foot by repeating history. It's gone through so many changes how you deal with kids. Sesame Street just showed it. Showed diverse people living together, never calling attention to it. Five years into that, the show decided to actually talk about, "This is my skin. Look at my beautiful skin. These are my eyes.." You know and actually point up the differences and say how we're different. And, there's always those two schools of thought in children's education. Just show it, everybody living together. Those two trains of thought can work simultaneously. If you watch "Street Gang", there is a wonderful part of in that documentary about Roosevelt Franklin, the first black puppet that was created for the show. And he was a big success. But he didn't fulfill all the hopes and dreams of all African Americans in the United States. This poor little puppet. So some people liked him, some didn't. So they had to get rid of him. And Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson's wife says in the documentary,there's this whole sense of, you know, not bringing calling attention to race. At that time on Sesame Street, she said, "Why? Black kids know they're black, why not say it." So that's that way. Or the other way is, "Let's not say it. Let's present just people working together and being together." So I think they have to work hand in hand. I think you do point it out and you don't point it out in various projects.

Cheraine Stanford

Sonia, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Sonia Manzano

Well, thank you. My pleasure.

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